Less than 100 Sumatran rhinos survive in the world today, according to a bleak new population estimate by experts. The last survey in 2008 estimated that around 250 Sumatran rhinos survived, but that estimate now appears optimistic and has been slashed by 60 percent. However conservationists are responding with a major new agreement between the Indonesian and Malaysian governments at a recent summit by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Species Survival Commission (IUCN SSC).
The Sumatran rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) is found in small, fragmented populations on the islands of Sumatra (Indonesia) and Borneo (Malaysia), as well as a recently identified individual or group in Indonesian Borneo. The world’s smallest and hairiest rhino, the Sumatran is believed to be possibly related to the extinct woolly rhinoceros, having been around for around for 20 million years.
“Serious steps must be taken to roll back the tide of extinction of the Sumatran rhino,” Widodo Ramono, Executive Director of Yayasan Badak Indonesia (YABI), said in a statement. “This could be our last opportunity to save this species and, by working together as a collaborative unit, internationally and regionally, with an agreed vision and goals, a glimmer of hope has been clearly demonstrated.”
Sumatran rhino in Sabah, a neighboring state in Malaysian Borneo. Photo by Jeremy Hance.
Over 130 government officials, scientists, and NGO representatives met for a week long summit earlier this month at the Singapore Zoo on ways to proceed with conserving the Sumatran rhino. The summit was notable for gathering experts from both Indonesia and Malaysia to compare notes on the Critically Endangered species and for the production of a two year emergency action plan. According to a press release, the summit also looked at past success stories of bringing nearly extinct animals back from the brink, including the white rhinoceros, California condor, and black-footed ferret.
Mark Stanley Price, Chairman of the IUCN SSC Species Conservation Planning Sub-Committee called the summit “transformational” for pledges between the governments to work together to save the animal.
As well, he noted that “huge progress has been made in specifying the resources needed to improve rhino surveys, security and monitoring. We have also explored the potential of new technologies and the role of integrating the management of wild and captive individuals.”
Not all Sumatran rhino news has been bleak lately: last year the first Sumatran rhino calf was born at a semi-wild sanctuary in Indonesia. It was only the fourth time in a century that captive Sumatran rhinos have given birth. A similar sanctuary, with large pens in natural forest, has also been establish in the state of Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. These two sanctuaries are increasingly being seen as “insurance policies” against total extinction. Currently the two sanctuaries house eight rhinos between them.
Possible plans include moving individual rhinos between Sumatra and Borneo, sharing reproductive cells, and using the most advanced reproductive technology available.
For decades, Sumatran rhinos were decimated by widespread deforestation and poaching for their horns. Rhino horn is used in Chinese Traditional Medicine, despite the fact that research has shown the horns have no medicinal benefit whatsoever. Today, the species is further imperiled by hanging-on in tiny, disconnected populations in shrinking forest fragments. Some of the rhinos now protected in the sanctuaries lived alone in tiny forests unable to reach others of their kind.
“We need to act together urgently, hand in hand, replicating some of the inspirational successes of other conservation efforts and aim to stop any failures that might impede progress,” Ramono said.
This article was written by Jeremy Hance for Mongabay.com and reposted on Focusing on Wildlife.